Barnes & Noble
Published by: Avon Trade
Release Date: January 8, 2005
What do you do when you discover that your six-year-old daughter has a better social life than you do? That’s precisely the predicament of Claire Marsh, twenty-something, newly-divorced, and desperate to get out of the house. Lately, she’s felt like little more than the chef and chauffeur for her wildly popular, peripatetic (and insanely over-scheduled) daughter Zoë, shuttling her to ballet lessons, bikram yoga, birthday parties, and—of course—numerous play dates, but she can’t find a minute for a “play date” of her own!
Claire hasn’t been having much fun lately. First, her husband left her for an olderwoman; and now she’s compelled to face life’s little vicissitudes without a soft place to fall, learning how to manage her own money, juggle a job, unclog the toilet, and raise Zoë alone.
The slings and arrows of Claire’s outrageous fortune sting even more sharply when Zoë begins to prefer the company of her fun-loving Aunt Mia (“MiMi”), Claire’s older sister, a bohemian makeup artist who is about to turn thirty and thus far has managed to avoid needing to take responsibility for anything.
In an inventive narrative style that tells the story through the first-person POVs of each of the three related protagonists, PLAY DATES unfolds over the course of a single year in their lives, from Zoë’s entering the second grade in September through her “graduation” the following June. As the months progress, all three heroines experience their own kind of growing pains and, by the following summer, they’ve each taken an unforgettable journey.
Amid laughter and tears, Claire-terrified of being a single parent-learns to lighten up and loosen up, and finds the special kind of “happily ever after” that comes from true self-fulfillment. She even has the opportunity to grab a second chance at love. The free-spirited Mia discovers that, contrary to Kander and Ebb, life is not, actually, a cabaret. Turning thirty, she embraces a series of newfound responsibilities and deliciously surprising discoveries with her unique brand of zaniness and charm . . . and, well, through all the ballet recitals, book reports, yoga classes, birthday parties for classmates whose parents have more money than God, a teacher who seems to have it in for her, a mom who seems to be undergoing some sort of life crisis, and ugh-the horror of being the only girl your age who still wears an Ariel swimsuit, Zoë survives second grade and develops an unforgettable bond with her mother.
A US Weekly magazine “hot book pick”; also featured in the February 2005 issue ofChild magazine. Fans of The Nanny Diaries and Le Divorce will want to make a play date with Play Dates right away!
. . . engaging . . . Carroll’s mockery of the snobbishness that pervades some urban parenting circles is spot on.
Priceless send-ups of Park Avenue soccer moms.
…a satiric social commentary on the materialistic manners and mores of pushy upscale parents . . . charming, timely and instructive . . . Parents besieged by the play-date syndrome will find solace, and single moms, regardless of where their child goes to school, will probably cheer.
~Between The Covers by Joan Baum, The Independent
Ms. Carroll’s writing is fresh and lively, and her plot unusual. . . . a fresh new look at motherhood and romance, New York style, and is a guaranteed winner for those cold nights in front of the fire, with this book and a nice glass of cabernet.
~Diana Risso, Romance Reviews Today
. . .entertaining, intelligent, and filled with love. It’s a book perfect to recommend to girlfriends, sisters and mothers.
~aromancereview.com [4 ½ roses – out of 5]
It all came to me on the southbound R train on the ride between 57th and Rector Streets. A full-blown plot, like Athena springing from the head of Zeus. It’s not the way I usually work.
I still remember the lunch I had with my editor and her boss after Temporary Insanity, my first novel for Avon Trade, was in the pipeline. Over a nice filet of fish, the topic under discussion was “What’s next?” Luckily, I’d received some pre-game coaching from my agent, so I asked them what they’d like to see me writing next. Was there any hot topic in the world of lighthearted women’s fiction that still remained surprisingly neglected?
“What I’d really like to see is a story about a single mom whose little daughter has a better social life than she does,” sighed my editor’s boss-a single mom whose six-year-old daughter evidently had a better social life than she did.
As soon as I got back downtown to my survival job, I sent them an email, proposing a story about a young single mom whose daughter has a more fulfilling social life than she does. And, whaddya know, by the time I clocked out, it was accepted! Of course, there was more to my proposal than a single sentence. Remember Athena.
At the time, my niece was the same age as the editor’s boss’s child. From enough sociological observation on the sidewalks of New York (and from my sister, who although happily married, was well versed in that lifestyle). I intended to layer in the dynamics that make competitive mothering into a contact sport on the Upper East and Upper West Side of Manhattan. These are the parents who rent out museums for their children’s birthday parties, and whose kids are enrolled in cutthroat private schools on the fast track to Harvard by first grade. Lavish expenditures cement their social standing; those who can’t keep up face mockery and ostracism.
I added an economic gap as well as an age gap between the newly divorced young mom, Claire, who is still in her mid-twenties and the other moms in her social circle who didn’t get pregnant until their mid-thirties and who hire au pairs who are Claire’s age. And I introduced another have/have-not element to the story: Claire’s unmarried sister Mia, free-spirited but financially independent, an unfettered soul who yearns to settle down. Each young woman envies what her sister has. I thought it would be fun to tell the story through three voices-Claire’s, Mia’s, and Zoë’s. To make sure that Zoë, Claire’s daughter, was doing the right sort of homework and having age-appropriate conversations for a precocious second-grader in an academically challenging New York City private school, I picked my sister’s brain. She became my goddess of verisimilitude.
The result is a slice of lifestyle story, which-as I keep hearing from overscheduled kids and their exhausted mothers-remains all too true.
“Zoë, honey, please put those down. You’re only six years old.”
“I’m six and three-quarters.”
“I’m sorry, sweetie. Six and three-quarters. Yes, you’re a big girl, now. Still, you can’t wear high heels to second grade.”
“I want to look like MiMi.”
“You’ll have plenty of time to look like your aunt MiMi,” I cajole. “Believe me, you don’t want to rush growing up.”
“Yes, I do.”
We’ve been hunting for the perfect pair of school shoes for upwards of half an hour. My linen dress is clinging to my body like a limp dishrag. This has to be the hottest Labor Day on record. You could fry an egg in the middle of Broadway. It’s so muggy outside that we could have waded up to Harry’s Shoes, which must be the craziest place in the city to have to visit on the last shopping day before school starts. It’s mayhem in here. The decibel level is even worse than a Saturday afternoon at PlaySpace. Honestly, I don’t know how the salespeople cope. The management must give them a free hit of Prozac when they punch their time card.
I think the mothers and merchants of New York City will breathe a collective sigh of relief tomorrow. I sure know I could use a break. I’ve spent every day this summer with Zoë. It’s the first time I’ve ever had to care for her 24/7. I lost both husband andhousekeeper in the divorce. Hilda had been Scott’s mother’s housekeeper at one point, so her loyalty was to the Franklins. I’ve had no one to pick up the slack, so I could catch a catnap, find twenty minutes for a manicure, or—God forbid—go to lunch with a girlfriend.
Zoë, looking like a wilted daisy, comes over to me complaining of the heat and humidity. “I’m sticky,” she gripes, pushing limp bangs off her forehead with a grubby hand. I open my bag, whip out a Wash’n Dri, mop her brow, wipe her hands, and pin up her hair with an elastic and a clip.
“Blow,” Zoë says, and I purse my lips and generate a gentle Mommy breeze, cooling the nape of her neck and her face.
Brimming with purpose and bustle, a tall woman with one of those year-round tans, forty-something and looks it, practically tramples a knot of preschoolers to get to me. She’s nearly out of breath. “Who do you work for?” she asks abruptly.
“I don’t understand,” I reply, caught completely by surprise.
“I’ve been watching you from across the room,” she says. I’m sorry. I thought you spoke English. I wanted to know who you work for.”
“Who do I work for?” I’m still not getting it. Maybe the intense heat of the day has baked my brain.
The woman slips into the cadences one uses when they think they’re speaking to someone either dreadfully hard of hearing or from a country whose gross national income wouldn’t cover the cost of an August sublet in the Hamptons. “It’s so hard to find someone who—you know—well, speaks English. And is well-groomed—and-you’re so good with the little girl.” She unsnaps her Fendi “baguette” and withdraws a slim leather card case. “If you’re ever unhappy with your present situation, please do consider giving me a call. Xander isn’t much of a handful.” She points out a small boy about Zoë’s age with an unruly mop of brown curls, banging together two Yao Ming-size Timberlands as if they’re a pair of orchestra cymbals.
Oh, good Lord. I get it now. “You think I’m an au pair, don’t you?” I ask the older woman. She looks so smug, I decide that the most delicious way to set her straight is through indirect communication. Besides, a smartass remark just isn’t me. My sister Mia is the one who excels at the witty rejoinder. “Zoë, sweetie, please let’s settle on something. Mommy’s going to pass out in a few minutes if we don’t get away from this crowd.” The child has a way of totally zoning out for some reason whenever we go to a shoe store. I guess it’s why I postponed the school-shoe shopping expedition until the last possible moment.
I’m trying not to let her see how exasperated I am that what should have been a half-hour excursion is turning into a day trip. And in this heat it’s not easy. Ever since her father left, I feel guilty when I get angry or lose patience with her. The divorce was rough on both of us and I’m unused to being the disciplinarian. More than that, I’m uncomfortable with it. My own parents are uncharacteristically non-neurotic. Actually, I suppose their loopy progressiveness is their own form of dysfunction, and not having grown up in a strict household, I haven’t a clue how to run one, even when discipline is clearly called for.
My now-ex-husband Scott was able to handle his dot-com CFO responsibilities from home much of the time, so while I took a full course load at Columbia and got my bachelor’s degree in art history during Zoë’s first four years, it was Scott who heard our daughter say her first word (“Da”) and whose hands she let go of when she took her first cautious, halting, baby steps. Zoë worships her father and has been blaming me for the divorce, even though it was Scott who decided to walk away from the marriage several months ago.
My cell phone vibrates. It’s my friend Sue. “Where are you?” she demands accusingly.
Well, no reason for her to cop an attitude, just because we haven’t been in touch for a while! What have I done to her? “I’m at Harry’s trying to find Zoë some school shoes she can live with. What’s the matter?”
“Oh…nothing. Just that I’ve been sitting here at Farfalle since one thirty. I’m on my third glass of Pinot Grigio and the waitstaff is making me feel particularly pathetic for having been stood up. At first I thought you must have been held up in transit, but—”
“Hold on, Sue.” I cover the phone and turn to Zoë. “You can have the lace-up or the ones with the buckle.” Shit. I was supposed to meet Sue for lunch today. We’ve had this planned for ages, but the dry-erase board got Bolognese sauce on it, so we had to wipe it clean and I guess I didn’t remember the date with Sue when I went to write down all our activities again. The collateral damage was that the appointment also got wiped clean out of my mind, so of course I didn’t arrange for baby-sitting.
“I am so sorry,” I apologize. “I completely forgot. Please don’t hate me. It’s been a bit insane lately.” It’s hard to continue the conversation while keeping an eye on Zoë, and the cell phone connection is dreadful. I’m becoming one of those people who yells inanities into her phone. Tales that can wait to be told at another time. One of those people for whom boiling oil and melted lead is an insufficient torture. “Sue, let me call you when we get home, and maybe we can set something up for ….”Sssssssshhhhhhh. The connection goes dead. Next year. Maybe.
So, here I am, trying to keep things light to disguise my frustration. “How can you hate shoe-shopping and be my daughter?” I tease.
“Daddy hates shoe-shopping and I’m his daughter, too. They’re divorced,” Zoë volunteers, for the benefit of anyone within earshot of the girls’ shoe department. “Daddy left her for an older woman.”
Where did hell did she get that phrase? Oh, right, she hears me use it all the time on the phone when I’m venting to Mia or to my female friends-like Sue-whom I hardly find the time to see anymore, even though they live across town.
“Well, dear, it’s usually the other way around,” Xander’s mother mutters, loud enough for me to hear. She has an edge to her that I find instantaneously unpleasant. Maybe it’s just me and I’m having a bad day. I’m sure this woman with the cancer cabana tan and the meticulously highlighted blown-straight-to-within-an-inch-of-its-overprocessed-life hair is a very lovely human being, despite the fact that she is quick to assume that a young woman in charge of a child must be its grad-student nanny. Evidently, she must have read too many celebrity tell-alls.
By this time, Xander has wandered over to his mother. She covers his ears with her jeweled hands. “Men are pigs,” she hisses sororally. She sizes me up some more and then extends her hand. “I’m Nina Osborne. So, you’re her mother. Fascinating. You don’t see too many your age these days. It’s …so retro.”
I shake Nina’s hand. “Claire Marsh.” My own name tastes unfamiliar on my tongue. “Sorry, it takes a little bit of adjustment. I was Claire Marsh and then I became Claire Franklin, and it’s so recently back to Marsh again that I”—I’m babbling here—”the judge only signed the decree a few weeks ago allowing me to go back to legally using my maiden name.”
“How long have you been—?” Nina looks at Zoë and stops herself, deciding that the “D” word is a dirty one to say in front of my child, who has, herself just used it in a voice loud enough to carry in Yankee Stadium.
“Memorial Day. Fitting, huh?”
Nina points at herself with a manicured talon. “Last Valentine’s Day. Can you believe it? How’s yours coping?”
I watch Zoë’s little fingertip caressing a pair of size 6½B Steve Madden platforms despite my previous attempt at admonishment. “Wishing she were an adult. I think she feels really out of control of things. I try to keep her busy so she doesn’t have too much time to mope. I’m hoping all the distractions will help her get past the divorce so she can begin to move on.”
“You’re so brave,” Nina says, eyeing Zoë.
“I don’t know about that,” I say, trying to laugh off the pain I still feel at having been abandoned. “It’s not like I had a choice in the matter.”
“I mean you’re so brave not to care about children’s fashion,” she clarifies.
So that’s why she was sizing up my little girl dawdling by the funky ladies’ shoes in her Children’s Place sportswear. Her son is wearing Ralph Lauren chinos and polo shirt. Zoë and I are clearly N.I.O.L.D. (Not In Our League, Dear).
“Xander is acting out,” Nina confides, no longer feeling pressured to sugarcoat her son’s behavior. “He really misses having his dad around. The jerk. Robert, not Xander. In fact I’d be the happiest woman in New York if I was able to find an au pair who could handle him. Xander, not Robert. Robert did that himself quite nicely.”
I do the math and surmise why Nina is now on the prowl for a new nanny. I corral Zoë and bring her back into the children’s department, steering her to a table with various navy and black oxfords and Mary Janes. “Okay. Pick something,” I sigh. “Please. I’m not kidding.” I turn to Nina. “If an au pair works for a married couple, what would you call a nanny working for a single parent? An au seul?” She doesn’t appear to appreciate my efforts at levity. At least I’m amusing myself. Anything to try to retain a sense of humor this afternoon.
Zoë tugs on my skirt. “They’re boring,” she complains. With a desultory motion she pushes the sample shoes around on the table as if they were an unwanted plate of peas. “They don’t have a style.”
They do have a style, actually. Boring. The kid happens to be right. Still …”They’re not supposed to be stylish, Zoë. They’re school shoes.”
“Why can’t this year be like first grade? We didn’t have to wear uniforms last year.”
“Well, The Thackeray Academy, in its infinite wisdom, thinks that by the time you get to second grade you should concentrate on your schoolwork instead of showing off.”
“Oh, is Zoë at Thackeray?” Nina asks. “Xander, blue or black. Not brown!” She looks at me, her face at once grim and woeful. “Xander’s colorblind. Like his father.” She leans over and whispers, “I just hope he never inherits Robert’s male-pattern baldness.” Notwithstanding her previous confession about Xander’s “acting out,” Nina seems displeased that in such a public place her son has demonstrated something short of sheer perfection. “Xander is transferring to Thackeray this year. He was at Ethical Culture for his first two years, but after Robert took up with Gretl or Britta or Caressa, or whatever the heck her name was—”
Xander pokes his mom. “Ula. Her name is Ula,” he says angrily. I get the feeling the kid kind of liked Ula, too.
“Ula,” Nina repeats acidly, elongating the first syllable of the nanny’s name as though she is in extremis. “Ula—and left us high and dry, Xander began acting like Dennis the Menace on speed. So, I wanted to find a private school that wasn’t quite as permissive. Xander needs structure. Thackeray’s insistence on uniforms from the second grade on somewhat eased my mind.”
I vividly remember the academy’s much-vaunted “discipline.” The notorious Marsh sisters were the scourge of many a Thackeray educator from preschool through twelfth grade. There was nothing that Mia and I thought we could get away with that we didn’t try. And for the most part, our parents found our teachers’ exasperation to be a source of mild amusement. This was in the pre-uniform days and long before marriage and motherhood would round off most of my edges. About five years ago, when parents of scholarship kids made a huge fuss about the undue focus on brands and labels (people like Nina Osborne being Exhibit A), the Thackeray administration decided to take drastic steps to remedy the situation. Zoë has been enrolled since kindergarten, and she’s right—they don’t make the preschoolers through first graders wear uniforms. Actually, it’s more of a uniform suggestion, though it conjures up images of cold war fashion. Nikita Khrushchev for Kids R Us. There are a number of prescribed outfits, all in shades of blue and gray, and the kids are permitted to exercise their creativity by making their daily sartorial selections from this rather limited pool. Like Zoë said about the shoes: boring! But now I’m finding myself somehow grateful for the regulation. Now I’m a single parent. Now I’m watching every penny.
I admit that for her first couple of years, Zoë owned more French fashions than I did. Her wardrobe tells the story of the financial state of affairs during my marriage. She wore Oilily and the Dior Baby imports. When our savings started to dwindle, we moved on to Shoofly and Space Kiddets for toddler togs, then to Gap Kids and Gymboree, and now it’s Daffys, Old Navy, and Children’s Place. There is no Wal-Mart in Manhattan.
And now I’m going to have to find a real job for the first time in my life. It probably seems weird for a twenty-five-year-old New York woman to be saying this, in this day and age, but straight out of high school I went from my parents’ home into marriage and pregnancy, not actually in that order. Then I attended Columbia while Scott worked from home and minded Zoë. During the dot-com boom, I didn’t need to work. Since I graduated, I’ve been in the—some believe—enviable position of being a full-time mommy for the past couple of years.
But what else am I good at, which, while I bring up baby, will bring in the bucks? I studied art history because it interested me, not giving much thought at the time to needing to use the knowledge as anything more than playing amateur museum docent to friends and family. Without a master’s degree, I can’t get a teaching job, and going to graduate school at this point is about as likely to happen as getting blasted by a comet while standing in the middle of Times Square or finding a man who won’t leave me. As Hilda the housekeeper is no longer in the picture, flexibility is key. I’ll still need to be able to collect Zoë from Thackeray every day and escort her to and from the myriad after-school activities to which she is committed, most of which, like the lion’s share of her stratospheric tuition, are now funded by her doting grandparents. Sometimes I wish they lived in the city. Their physical assistance would be as valuable to me as their generous financial aid.
I can’t help noticing that Nina is staring at me. In fact she’s been sizing me up during our entire conversation. I feel like a microbe.
“You’re so … so perky.” Funny, I’ve never felt less so in my life. “You remind me of someone,” she adds. “That actress from Legally Blonde.”
“Is that good?” I ask her. Her expression looks like she’s got a hair stuck on her tongue. I guess Nina’s got image issues with perky blondes. I take an educated guess at Ula’s hair color.
“I’m still trying to get used to seeing someone so … well, such a young mother. I had Xander when I was thirty-eight. I’d done everything I’d planned: college, grad school, total immersion in the corporate culture, golden parachute, married well—the works—and the only thing I had left to fulfill was my biological destiny.”
Her biological destiny? I’ve never heard that one before!
“Who does she see?” Nina asks.
“What do you mean?”
“Her therapist. Xander’s isn’t working out. And I thought, since Zoë was going through divorce issues, too, that you might have found someone you’re happy with. Xander’s been seeing a Freudian, and the last thing he needs to hear right now is that he’s got issues with his mother.”
How did I end up living in a world where six-year-old children routinely see psychotherapists? “We … we’re managing on our own,” I tell Nina. “And, to be honest, I don’t know of anyone. I’m sorry I can’t be of any help.”
She looks amazed, but elegantly covers her discomfort at having so boldly exposed her son’s emotional shortcomings to a mother with—how could it be possible—a kid who is relatively sane, or at the very least, not in need of professional counseling. She switches her focus to a stunning pair of pumps, excuses herself, and saunters over to admire them. I note the designer name emblazoned in raised gold letters over the warmly lit display case. Illuminated with its own pin spot, the sample pair resembles a priceless treasure-like something from the tomb of King Tut—in a climate-controlled, vigilantly guarded room at the Metropolitan Museum.
My mouth begins to water. If only …
But not anymore. Those are trophy-wife shoes, and that’s no longer my life. Making sure Zoë’s got everything she needs is my priority. A new pair of Stuart Weitzmans can wait. Besides, when am I going to wear them? When I take Zoë to that horridly overheated bikram yoga studio on Saturdays? Or ballet class on Wednesday afternoons? Or the kinder karate program she begged to try this year?
I convince Zoë to settle for a pair of navy T-straps, promising her that maybe next year I’ll allow her to wear the grown-up-looking slip-ons that she clearly prefers. I do admire the fact that she’s already developing her own sense of style. Even if it usually means that she wants to dress like a grown-up. Or like her aunt Mia, who, for a woman about to turn thirty, still dresses like a rebellious teen, in precipitously high platforms, low-riders, and belly tees.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow Zoë will start school again and I can begin the job hunt. I’ve been unable to focus on it, what with her being home all summer, and the divorce so new, the hurt so raw for all of us. This would have been the first year she’d have gone to camp, but given the upheaval of our lives, it didn’t seem like the right thing to do. My parents offered to foot the bill if Zoë really wanted to go. But I chafed at the idea of accepting any more charity from them and thought it would ease the transition into single parenthood if Zoë and I spent the summer together.
My mom and dad sent a check anyway. I insisted on it being only a loan. They didn’t want me to have to job hunt during the summer. There were too many drastic changes already. They convinced me that there’d be more time to look, and, hopefully, a better market, after Zoë went back to school.
I did take her to a couple of the municipal swimming pools—both of which she pronounced “icky”—and I thought she might like it if we went out to Coney Island. But the long subway ride made her cranky, the amusement park overwhelmed her-too noisy-and she was scared to set foot in the ocean. We spent a few weekends at my parents’ house in Sag Harbor, where she got to play with their Irish Setter and visit a quieter beach on the Long Island Sound. I think that was the last time I’ve had the chance to exhale since early August.
We’re having to learn to cope as a twosome, Zoë and I, and it hasn’t always been easy. Maybe I should log onto Amazon and see if they sell something along the lines of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Single Parenting.